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What are the Penalties for Homicide by Vehicle While Driving Under the Influence (Pennsylvania)

The crime of vehicular homicide can be complicated even more so by an accusation of the driver being under the influence of alcohol or drugs during the time that the crime was committed. The Bucks County homicide defense attorneys at Young, Marr & Associates explore the potential penalties – including jail time, fines, and sentencing – for homicide by vehicle involving a DUI in Pennsylvania. Keep reading for more information.

Can I Go to Jail for Vehicular Homicide if I Was Drunk in Pennsylvania?

In Pennsylvania, the crime of homicide by vehicle while driving under the influence (commonly referred to as “vehicular homicide”) is defined as having unintentionally caused the death of another person as a result of driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs or a combination of both.  A conviction under the homicide by vehicle statute is a felony of the second degree, and the person convicted is subjected to a mandatory minimum jail sentence of three (3) years.  Also, the person convicted is subjected to an additional three-year jail sentence for each victim whose death is the direct result of driving under the influence.

For example, a Doylestown man charged with DUI and vehicular homicide faced similar penalties. While vehicular homicide is a complex case in its own, it is essential to retain an experienced DUI defense lawyer for this type of case.

Proving Fault in a Vehicular Homicide DUI Case in Pennsylvania

In order to prove a person is guilty of homicide by vehicle while driving under the influence, the government is required to prove beyond a reasonable doubt a causal connection between the driver’s intoxicated driving and the accident which resulted in death.  In other words, the government must establish that the death (or deaths) was directly attributable to the driver’s intoxicated state.

It is not enough where the driver’s intoxication was “most likely” the cause of the fatal accident.  For example, in a case where the evidence showed that a head-on collision occurred and the driver-defendant’s blood alcohol content was .21% (nearly three times the legal limit), the driver-defendant was found NOT GUILTY because there was insufficient evidence to show that the victim’s fatal injuries were caused by the driver-defendant’s drunk driving.  There were no eyewitnesses and there were no skid marks on the road to show that the driver-defendant’s vehicle had crossed the center lane of travel prior to the head-on collision.  In this case, the jury would have had to speculate to find that the driver-defendant’s vehicle crossed the center lane of travel prior to the collision.  Accordingly, the driver-defendant was found NOT GUILTY.

On the other hand, where there is evidence of a driver-defendant’s driving behavior on the road, this could be sufficient to establish a causal connection between the driver’s intoxicated state and the resulting fatal injuries.  For example, in a case where an eyewitness testified that she saw the driver-defendant driving erratically on the road and at an excessive speed immediately prior to the collision, there was sufficient evidence to support a conclusion that the driver-defendant’s intoxication caused the fatal accident.

In homicide by vehicle while driving under the influence cases, it is essential to examine all of the facts surrounding the vehicle-collision so as to demonstrate a lack of causation. You must look to the road conditions on the day in question.  Speak with any eyewitnesses who may have seen the accident and speak with a Pennsylvania DUI attorney if you are unsure how to proceed.  Look to an accident reconstructionist who can reconstruct how the accident actually occurred.  Attacking the element of causation is oftentimes the best defense in these types of cases.

“Intervening Causes” as a Defense to Vehicular Homicide While Under the Influence in PA

Generally, the victim’s death must be a direct cause of the driver-defendant’s intoxicated state.  However, there are certain cases in which there are intervening causes which resulted in the victim’s death, and in those types of cases, the intervening cause of death may act as an affirmative defense in a homicide by vehicle while driving under the influence case.

Under Pennsylvania caselaw, a driver-defendant is allowed to introduce evidence which establishes that something other than or in addition to his or her violation of the Vehicle Code caused the accident and resulting death.

For example, in a case where the victim was driving a tractor on the road on a foggy night in violation of the Vehicle Code’s lighting requirements, the driver-defendant, who was speeding on the road after having been drinking at a bar, was able to argue that the tractor should not have been allowed on the roadway because it lacked proper lighting and this too caused the accident that occurred.  In this situation, the jury was able to conclude that the victim’s failure to equip his tractor with proper lighting was the direct cause of the accident and resulting death, rather than the driver-defendant’s speeding violation.  Accordingly, the driver-defendant was found NOT GUILTY.

Is Criminal Negligence Required in a Drunken Vehicular Homicide Case?

In addition to proving causation between the driver’s intoxicated state of mind and the fatality that occurred, the government must also prove that the driver was criminally negligent in his or her conduct.  This is a very important part of proving homicide by vehicle while driving under the influence.  In legal terms, this means that the crime of homicide by vehicle is NOT a strict liability crime.  Instead, the government must prove that the driver was negligent in his or her conduct.

Criminal negligence has been defined as being aware of a substantial and unjustifiable risk that a material element exists or will result from his or her conduct.  The risk must be of such a nature and degree that the driver’s failure to perceive the risk involves a gross deviation from the standard of care that a reasonable person would observe in the driver’s situation.

Contact Our Pennsylvania Vehicular Homicide Defense Lawyers

In defending these types of cases, it is crucial to attack the causation element of this crime with the help of an experienced homicide and DUI defense lawyer in Philadelphia and Pennsylvania.  In order words, it is very important to severe the driver-defendant’s intoxication from the cause of death.  Mere intoxication is simply not enough to prove homicide by vehicle while driving under the influence.  The focus must be on whether fatality was a direct and proximate result of the intoxication.  For more details on vehicular homicide cases, call to speak to a qualified Allentown homicide defense attorney.

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